Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (SACD review)

Also, A Night on Bald Mountain, and others. Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. RCA SACD 82876-61394-2.

Many record companies continue to see something in Super Audio Compact Discs because even RCA jumped into the fray a number of years back with an SACD collection of their old “Living Stereo” recordings of the Fifties and Sixties. The idea is that some recording companies made many of these old recordings originally with microphones to the left, center, and right of the stage, the three channels subsequently mixed down into two-channel stereo. With the availability of multiple channels of sound on SACDs, the companies can now utilize the original mixes of three front channels to the fullest. And for those of us who don’t own an SACD player, most of these discs are hybrids, meaning there is also a regular two-channel layer that one can play on any regular CD machine. The theory is that companies can remaster the regular two-channel layer and make it sound even better than what they previously provided, as the folks at RCA have supposedly done in their “Living Stereo” series, the sound remastered via DSD, Direct Stream Digital.

Well, yes, in the two-channel SACD mode to which I listened, RCA did slightly improve the sound of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition with Maestro Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. The highs no longer sound quite so bright or hard-edged. However, I also happened to have on hand the audiophile-remastered JVC disc of the same Mussorgsky recording, and I found the JVC smoother still, with a marginally greater depth of image. But that’s another story. The differences among the two-channel renderings on the three discs are really so small that I doubt most people would notice them except on direct comparison, let alone care. So I suppose the point is mostly moot unless you really, really love the performance, which I do, and then you want only the very best version of it.

The main thing about this whole affair is that Reiner’s 1957 interpretation of the Mussorgsky work is still the best one available, each “picture” an elegant little masterpiece, and RCA’s SACD edition has certain advantages over its regular competition. The SACD sounds good in two-channel stereo, with wonderful detailing and range, if not quite so good as the higher-priced JVC. It offers three-channel performance for those able to play it back that way. And coupled with it you’ll find the additional goodies that also come on the regular RCA release: Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, Tchaikovsky’s Marche miniature, Borodin’s Polovtsian March, Tchaikovsky’s March slave, Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon, and Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla Overture, all of them filled with the color and excitement you’d expect from Reiner performances.

Don’t you hate decisions? I’m glad it’s not my job to make them for you. But for myself alone, I can’t think of a better Mussorgsky Pictures than Reiner’s.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:



  1. What would you say about Ansermet's versions?

  2. I don't know how many times Ansermet recorded it, but the only one I remember hearing, many years ago, was his Decca recording with the Suisse Romande from around 1960. I recall it having excellent sound (although a touch edgy for my taste) and fairly good characterization and atmosphere. It must not have impressed me enough to buy it or keep it, though, as I haven't thought about it for years.

  3. Oki, thanks for the reply.
    I just heard the reviewed SACD so my times that I found Ansermet's interpretation quite refreshing.

  4. John, I really enjoy the blog as it's aptly named...lots of knowledge presented straight with no BS. The Ansermet/ Suisse Romande of 1960 is my own favorite version of Pictures with a uniquely superb sense of characterization for the movements helped by the French sound in the winds and brass that was part and parcel of the SRO in those days. It also meant that intonation could be approximate at times...Chicago was technically light years ahead of them in the playing and ensemble department. Still, it adds a rustic character that is unique to this version. Add to that the classic Decca Tree based sound that engineer Roy Wallace was doing with them in Victoria Hall Geneva at the time and you have a refreshing winner in the Pictures sweepstakes. It has been reissued by Decca Eloquence Australia and the bright top end has been tamed a bit.

  5. Thanks, Tom, for helping me remember the recording. Yes, I've always liked the early Decca sound, except when it could be a little bright, glassy, or edgy. I'll have to look into getting the Australian Eloquence.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa